by J. R. Miller, 1912
A distinguished clergyman said, in reviewing his ministry at its close, that if he were to begin over again, he would preach more comfortingly. There always are in any company of people, many who have sorrow, many at least who need uplifting and cheer. There is always a place for the comforter. And there are few who really understand the art of giving comfort. Many who seem to think they do and who are ready on every occasion to seek to console others who are in trouble, fail in their efforts. Job said that the friends who came to him in his calamity and spoke to him so volubly concerning his afflictions, were only "miserable comforters". Those who have passed through experiences of trouble and have had their friends and neighbors come and sit with them and give them what they considered words of consolation, have found ofttimes that they gave but small help. The burden of sorrow was not lighter after they had gone. No new light broke through the clouds upon those who sorrowed as they listened to the words of their friends. Their hearts were not quieted. They had learned no new song of joy.
It is worth our while to learn what true comfort is, and how we can speak tenderly to others. No ministry is more needed or finds more frequent opportunity for exercise. No men, in any community, become so highly esteemed and loved while the years go by—as those who are wise in giving comfort to others. The sad and weary turn to them for cheer and help. They always have a word to give, which imparts strength.
Those who would be wise in comforting—must be sympathetic. They must be patient with even the smallest griefs of others. It is not easy for the strong, to sympathize with the weak. They cannot understand how little sufferings and troubles, such as those which seem so hard for others to bear—should really cause any distress. They are disposed to laugh at the complaints of those who seem to have so little of which to complain. No doubt there are many people who make altogether too much, of very small cares and difficulties. They fret over every imaginable inconvenience or discomfort. No matter how well they are—they imagine they have many ills and can never talk to any one without speaking of their ailments. They magnify the minutest sufferings and sorrows. It seems to be their natural disposition to think of themselves, as particularly unfortunate. They find their chief pleasure apparently in having others commiserate them and sympathize with them.
It is not easy for persons of a strong, brave spirit, who are accustomed to look with contempt on the little trials and sufferings in their own life—to have patience with those who are really weak and unable to endure; or with those who so magnify their little ills and troubles. But if the strong would become real helpers of the weak, they must learn to be patient with every phase of their weakness, and to condescend to it. Indeed, weakness of this kind needs comfort that will cure it and transform it—into manly strength. Sympathy, to be truly rich and adequate, in its helpfulness, must be able to enter into every form of suffering, even the smallest, and to listen to every kind of complaining and discontent, to every fear and anxiety, however needless.
It was thus that Christ condescended to all human fraility. He never treated any one's trouble, however small, or any one's worry, however groundless, with lightness, as if it were unimportant. He bade to come to him, all who were weary, receiving graciously everyone who came. He was infinitely strong—but his strength was infinitely gentle to the weakest. Nothing in this world is more beautiful than the sight of a strong man giving his strength to one who is weak, that he may help him also to grow strong.
Another class who find it hard to sympathize with sorrow—are those who never have any sorrow of their own. They have been reared in sheltered homes, with love and tenderness all about them. They have never had an unmet need. They have never known hardship. They have never watched by the death-bed of a loved one, and there has been no break in their home circle. They have never had a bitter disappointment in their life. What do they know—of the experiences of suffering, of pain, of anguish, of struggle, of want, which comes to such multitudes in some form or other in life? These cannot sympathize with their fellows in their trials, in the things which make their life so hard. They do not understand what these experiences mean.
An artist has painted a picture which represents the scene of the crucifixion after it was all over. The crowd has gone. The cross is empty. The thorn-crown is lying on a rock, and an angel is looking at it, with his finger touching one of its sharp thorns wonderingly. He is trying to learn what pain is. He had beheld the anguish of the Son of God on the cross, and could not understand the mystery. The angels cannot understand our suffering, for they have never suffered. Nor can men who have never had pain or sorrow understand these experiences in us. They may pity us when they see us enduring our sufferings—but they cannot sympathize with us. Before we can be true comforters of others—we must know by experience in our own lives, the meaning of the things which give us pain or distress. If we do not, we cannot help them by any words we may say to them. There is nothing in our experience to interpret to us what they are suffering.
If we would help those who are in trouble, we must know what comfort really is. Many people do not. Many think that if they weep with those who weep, that they have comforted them. There is a measure of help in this. It does us good when we are suffering—to know that another feels with us. It brings another life into fellowship with ours. We are not alone—somebody cares. This makes us stronger to endure. We can bear our pain better if a friend holds our hand. This is the only way some people think of giving comfort. They sit down beside us and listen to our recital of grief. They let us tell it out in all its details. They encourage us to dwell on the painful incidents. They give expression to their pity, entering with us into our suffering as if it were their own. They dwell on the bitterness of our trial, emphasizing its sharpness and poignancy, thus adding to our pain and distress. Then they rise and go their way—leaving us just where they found us when they came in! They have shown their interest in us, their sympathy with us. But they have not given us the best comfort!
The word "comfort" is from a root that means to strengthen. In our modern use of the word, we have almost dropped this thought of its original sense. But we would better recall it. To comfort is to strengthen. When we would give comfort to others, we are not merely to let them know that we are their friends and are sorry for them. We are not just to try in some way to alleviate their pain. It is not enough that we in some measure relieve their distress. We are to seek to have them grow strong—so that they can endure the trouble and rejoice in it. This should be our aim in our ministry of comfort to others. We have not finished our work with them, therefore, until we have brought them some divine truth which will cast light on their sorrows, which will inspire them with hope and courage!
The comforter needs gentleness, for a harsh word would make the sorrow deeper. He needs patience, for grief yields slowly even to most faithful love. He needs tenderness like a mother's. God says to his afflicted ones, "As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you." A father's comfort is different from a mother's, and if we would be like God we must learn from mothers how to comfort. He who would give comfort must have faith. He must believe in God, must know him, must be sure of God's love. Then he will know how to sustain with words, him who is weary.